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Robert Earl Keen

Talent in and of itself isn't a ticket to stardom, but if it's mixed with a healthy dose of persistence, it can fuel a long and admirable career, as Robert Earl Keen's experience demonstrates. When record companies proved unwilling to back his first album, 1984's No Kinda Dancer, he picked up the tab himself and attracted the attention of folks at the Sugar Hill imprint with his impressive tunesmithing. Thirteen years and half a dozen smart and satisfying discs later, Arista Records inked him to a big-league contract. Keen (right) responded by putting out a couple of typically idiosyncratic platters -- a strategy as creatively rewarding as it was commercially disastrous. Unsurprisingly, he and Arista subsequently parted company, and after the one-shot release of his Gravitational Forces CD by Lost Highway in 2001, he returned to his indie roots. For most artists, such a shift would be synonymous with doom, yet Keen forges on, thanks to a fan base so loyal that the Grizzly Rose can justify booking him for a two-night run. Although he no longer has major-label support, he's got strong songs no one else could have written. That won't lead to fame and fortune, but it ain't bad.